And then there was one

    Thursday, March 25, 2010, 7:42 PM [General]

    THE RIGHT STUFF
    The Yankees made the best of a difficult choice in selecting Phil Hughes to be the fifth starter. The difficulty comes from both pitchers being promising young starters, both 24 this season, who have had Major-League success in the past. In an ideal world, the team would have room to put them both in the rotation and see who emerges -- not from 6.2 or 14 Spring Training innings -- but from a full season. However, once the Yankees made the entirely defensible decision to bet on a known quantity and re-sign the soon-to-be 38-year-old Andy Pettitte as well as grabbed the low-hanging fruit that was Javier Vazquez from the Braves, suddenly there was room for just one.

    The results of Spring Training would normally be too small to inform such a significant decision, but when combined with last year’s results, they create a basis for making a judgment about the relative merits of Mssrs. Hughes and Chamberlain. Simply, Chamberlain is damaged goods, tarnished by the .316/.397/.515 pounding he took in August and September last year. Even if the Yankees were instigators of this struggle with their inconsistent handling of the pitcher, there was also his declining velocity, his wildness and the way he seemed liberated by his postseason bullpen stint. To that we can add his problems to his spring. Though Hughes struggled in the postseason, those six innings speak less loudly than a year of successful growth and a solid Spring Training, half a million home runs allowed to the Phillies notwithstanding.

    It is assumed that Joba will now slide into the eighth-inning bullpen role he performed so well in the past. I remain skeptical. He was clearly more effective in the postseason, with increased velocity, but he was hardly dominant, allowing nine hits in 6.1 innings. He may get the role out of Spring Training, but he won’t necessarily hold onto it. Something is happening, and just like Dylan’s Mr. Jones, we don’t know what it is.

    HE’S NOT OUR MANAGER ANYMORE
    Albert Einstein visited this country when it was struggling to deal with the fallout from the misguided proscription alcohol. As he arrived, reporters asked the brilliant man what should be done about the terrible state the country was in as a result. “That’s your problem,” Dr. Einstein said, “not mine.”

    The same can now be said of Dodgers manager Joe Torre, who today named journeyman Vicente Padilla his opening day starter despite the presence of, among others, Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw on the staff. I suppose it’s just one day, but as with his ham-fisted handling of Alex Rodriguez, one has to wonder if Torre’s touch has deserted him. Padilla can do anything short of throwing 30 shutouts this year and he will still be a footnote in Dodgers history, whereas Kershaw and Billingsley will be the heart of the franchise for years (barring injury, comets, the return of the dinosaurs, etc, etc). Way to show your confidence in them, Joe. Some things never change. From the day he became a manager, Torre loved his veterans and he still loves them, even when that love is self-destructive. I feel the same way about cookies, cakes and other desserts, so I can empathize.

    THE ATHLETICS TRADE FOR EDWAR RAMIREZ
    Ramirez has finally landed in one of the few parks his fly-ball lovin’ ways won’t absolutely kill him in. Now all he has to do is get the ball over the plate.

    YOJIMBO
    In response to a great many tweets a few days ago, I finally got around to watching Kurosawa’s samurai western “Yojimbo,” a copy of which I have had hanging around the house since we founded the homestead back in 1852. Tishiro Mifune was spectacular, the rest of the cast mixed. The villains were so broadly drawn, and the protagonist so far ahead of them, that the film lacked tension. To some degree this was intentional, the director lulling you into a false sense of confidence so that later plot turns have more impact, but it still requires some patience to get to that point. The comedy relief, which veers between the punchy John Ford style and horror, helps quite a bit. The further I get away from the picture the more I like it, especially Sanjuro, the protagonist. I’m happy that Kurosawa made a sequel, but also saddened that he didn’t make about five more after that, because I want to see more adventures of this character. And no, Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, modeled on Mifune’s Sanjuro, doesn’t quite do the trick. For more (with a great many spoilers) see Roger Ebert’s essay.

    3.2 (1 Ratings)

    Chad Gaudin on waivers

    Wednesday, March 24, 2010, 12:24 PM [General]

    I still believe he has more long-term value than Sergio Mitre, but you can’t argue with the way the latter has pitched this spring, or just how bad Gaudin has been. The issue with Gaudin has always been control, whereas with Mitre it has been staying healthy and not getting his head handed to him. Two years younger and with a better track record of health and effectiveness, I’d rather bet on Gaudin’s strikeout rate and the possibility of finding a way to shave half a walk per nine innings than on Tommy John surgery having suddenly turned Mitre into an effective pitcher.

    The team that acquires Gaudin is going to get a serviceable fifth starter/long man, while it’s not quite clear what application Mitre will have for the Yankees. Long relief? That’s Alfredo Aceves’ job. Second lefty? He’s not a lefty. Even if he pitches well he has no role to play. Having traded Brian Bruney for a rent with option to buy on the great Jamie Hoffmann, the Yankees have now traded Gaudin for Mitre. I don’t know that any other team in baseball would do that.

    METS SHOPPING GARY MATTHEWS
    Their acquisition of Matthews was an easy first-guess, and now they’re trying to move the unmovable. This franchise has a leadership that just doesn’t think. Mets fans, your tickets go to supporting Gary Matthews. You’d think the front office would have been more leery of simply throwing away $2 million on a player who has lost his power, speed, and ability to play center field.

    TO THE MATS WITH READER COMMENTS
    1: WE ARE ON THE EDGE OF THE ULTIMATE ENDING!

    Why so pessimistic about Jeter, Moe and Jorge re-signing with the Yankees? Or, it’s just pretty words?—Designer

    I’m not pessimistic about contracts, I’m pessimistic about immortality. The Yankees can keep re-signing their vets to the point that they all turn into Craig Biggio 2006-’07 if they want to. I actually don’t want to watch that, so my advice was to watch now, while you can still see the thing that you cherish rather than its pale shade.

    As much as you might love those three, you shouldn’t want the Yankees to keep bringing them back, not if you care about winning.

    2: PROSPECT TOUT (PROSPECT TROUT?)
    Loved the comment regarding Romine....except that he's never hit lower than .276 or had an OBP lower than .322. He's done this while being one of the younger players in his league. He's a full league ahead of Jorge at the same age and put up numbers similar to what you would expect from Jorge if you'd pushed him up to A+ when he was 20.

    I also can't wait for all of the know-it-all evaluators of Montero as a catcher to eat their crow. I wonder how good a catcher Jorge was when he was 20...catching at Class A Greensboro...5 years before he got his 10th AB in the Majors.— dwnflfan


    Let’s take the second part first. You’ve missed the entire crux of the Montero dilemma. You’re right that his glove might be ready in five years, but his bat is ready NOW. Everyone, from the Yankees to every scout on the vine agree he’s not a major-league quality catcher NOW. Sure, you might have a decent catcher in 2015, but (a) it might never happen, and (b) if you wait around for him to be acceptable at the position, you blow a good portion of his career in the Minors.

    There are also reasons to believe that, as dedicated as Montero is to improving defensively, he has only so much room for progress. He’s a big guy, 6’4” and 225 pounds officially. There haven’t been too many catchers to be successful at that size—you’re asking Montero to cram a whole lot of beef into a small space, then be able to uncoil it fast enough to get a throw off to second base or chase a ball in the dirt, and he may squeeze in some more height or weight before he’s done. It all seems pretty unlikely, but either way, the issue is how you handle the timetable more than if he can catch eventually, as these destinies may be mutually exclusive.

    Now to Romine. The Minor Leagues are easier than the Majors. You can’t take a .276 at Tampa, or a .300 at Charleston, and assume that it represents the hitter’s level of production as he advances. You can compare him to Posada if you want to, but it’s unfair to Romine: at 20, Posada played 101 games at Greensboro and hit a home run every 28 at-bats and walked once every seven plate appearances. At the same level in 2008, Romine hit a home run once every 44 at-bats and drew a walk once every 17 at-bats. The next season, Posada hit a homer every 24 at-bats and walked every seven plate appearances. Romine, playing at Tampa last year, homered 34 at-bats and walked every 17 plate appearances.

    Yes, Romine is a year ahead of Posada’s pace, so there is more room for growth, but the simple fact is this: Posada was a more refined hitter from the outset, and Romine needs to refine his plate judgment or he’s not going to post a league-average OBP in the big leagues. Thirty walks a year in the minors doesn’t translate to 30 in the big leagues, it translates to 20. A .275 average suggests .250-.265. I gave Romine credit for further developing his power, which is why I said the challenge was for him to do better than .250/.300/.450 in the bigs. It’s early yet, but if he doesn’t change, he’s not going to be the next Jorge Posada, he’s going to be the next John Buck. Fortunately, he’s young enough that he has plenty of time to get better.

    MORE OF ME
    • My Tuesday-morning interview on Baltimore’s WNST-AM with Drew Forrester about the BP annual and other matters.

    Wholesome Reading has been updated with more to come. Warning: Politics! French fries extra.

    • It’s not me, but my pal Neil de Mause, author of Field of Schemes, had a discussion prompted by an article on the new Red Bull arena in Harrison that led to this discussion of non-existent development prompted by the new soccer stadium.

    1.4 (2 Ratings)

    The competition rolls on

    Monday, March 22, 2010, 4:38 PM [General]

    EVERYONE COMPLAINS ABOUT THE WEATHER…
    …But no one ever does anything about it. Phil Hughes may be thinking about that old line today. Thanks to Sunday’s rainout, the competition for the fifth starter’s spot was handicapped in Joba Chamberlain’s favor. With too many pitchers needing innings in too few games, Hughes drew the National League champion Phillies while Chamberlain got an improvised intrasquad game in which he faced such luminaries as Randy Winn, Jamie Hoffmann, and Reid Gorecki. Given that crowd, any performance less than dominance would have been a disappointment. I leave it to your judgment as to whether five innings, seven baserunners, two runs, and just one strikeout is appropriately encouraging. Joba’s lot may be to remain an enigma.

    Hughes faced a more representative lineup despite entering the game seemingly four hours after A.J. Burnett labored through the first inning. He gave up three home runs, including a walk-off shot to Wilson Valdez on a curveball that was so hung you could have put it in a frame and exhibited it at the Met. Nonetheless, he did get more than his share of swing-and-misses, striking out six in 4.1 innings (and no walks). Nothing happened today that is likely to close Joe Girardi’s open mind, but the strikeouts have to weigh heavily. Unless you’re talking about some kind of super-groundball guy, which Joba most emphatically is not, you’re not going to be able to count on the at-‘em ball to get you out of trouble most of the time. Much better to bet on the strikeout pitcher.

    You can only put so much faith in spring stats -- Sergio Mitre is unlikely to strike out nine batters per nine innings during the regular season -- but given Chamberlain’s struggles in the second half of last season, it is troubling that he’s still underwater on strikeout-to-walk ratio at that stage of Spring Training, even with the gimme-game against the second-stringers. Facing some of the same hitters, Andy Pettitte struck out six. Something about Chamberlain isn’t right, and as the Yankees have other options, it’s time to think about a diminished role until they figure out how to solve the problem.

    BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD
    The Yankees have returned Rule 5’d outfielder Jamie Hoffmann to the Dodgers. Brian Cashman alone knows what the heck the Yankees were thinking when they arranged with the Nationals to make that selection. The idea itself, getting a shot at the top of the Rule 5 draft list in return for the arbitration-eligible Brian Bruney, was sound, but the selection of Hoffmann was faulty. A 24-year-old with career minor league rates of .283/.355/.401 just isn’t going to play unless he plays defense like some unholy combination of Gary Pettis, prime Andruw Jones, and Joe DiMaggio, and maybe not even then. That the Dodgers chose to chart Hoffmann as a right fielder suggests that his glove wasn’t that special.

    The Yankees might have attempted to work out a deal with the Dodgers to retain Hoffmann (and for all we know they did) but they could have just as easily have decided not to bother given the fungible nature of Hoffmann’s skills. There is nothing of value a team would or should part with to retain a Hoffmann.

    Hoffmann was probably doomed from the moment Marcus Thames was signed, because Thames’ track record speaks for itself, whereas Hoffmann would have to prove himself. In the event, neither player hit, but it’s easier to dream on Thames finding his stroke than it is Hoffmann becoming a Major League hitter.

    It’s a shame the Yankees couldn’t find a more likely prospect, or failing that, a possible LOOGY, which may be the one kind of pitcher who might fall out of a tree and land in your lap, so limited is what they are asked to do. Again, the Yankees had the right idea but the wrong execution. Let’s hope they get to try it again sometime.

    OBSERVATION FROM TODAY’S GAME
    Jayson Werth looks like a Wookie. A derelict Wookie. Unlike Johnny Damon’s caveman period, it’s not a welcoming look. He could pass for an extra on “Cannibal Vampire Hermits” (forthcoming reality show set in New Jersey).

    JOE MAUER SIGNED FOREVER
    So much for him becoming Posada’s heir, a development which is bad for the Yankees but good for the game given that Mauer is Minnesota born and raised. The whole “rooting for the laundry” thing is overblown, but every once in awhile it is reassuring to see a player leave some coin on the table in order to stay home with Vic, Sade, Rush, and Uncle Fletcher. Meanwhile, the Yankees have enough prospective catchers that they should be able to move on from Posada when the time comes without suffering too badly. There are two questions that need positive answers right now if they are to continue to get above-average production from the position:

    1. Can Jesus Montero catch for a living? (Probably not.)
    2. Can Austin Romine replace the X in .250/X/.450 with an on-base percentage of .330 instead of .300? (Probably not?)

    Stay tuned. In the meantime, just as you enjoy every last appearance by your likely Hall of Fame shortstop and Hall of Fame closer, enjoy the sunset days of your likely Hall of Fame catcher…

    MORE FROM ME

    The Washington Times blog write-up of my visit to Washington, DC. Just found out it was there. Sounds like I had a good time…

    Wholesome Reading has been wholesomely updated with more to come. Warning: politics!

    1.9 (1 Ratings)

    Monument Park relieves

    Friday, March 19, 2010, 9:52 AM [General]

    AND OTHER DISCONTENTS
    But what is he a monument to? He had a solid inning on Thursday, but it’s still not obvious why he’s on the team, other than to provide depth for its own sake. Depth is a valid concern, but the Yankees would be better off in the long term getting Mark Melancon established.

    …Why hasn’t Jesus Montero been cut yet? Shouldn’t he be allowed to go to the Minor League camp and start playing every day? He’s not making the team unless Nick Johnson joins Grant Desme in religious seclusion. You’d like to see him unlimber, if only so that if there’s an injury to Johnson or one of the catchers, the Yankees can give him honest consideration for the spot.

    TO THE MATS WITH READER MAIL
    ON “ELITE” PROSPECTS

    Reader Rob takes issue with my stance on Yankees prospects. Take it away, Rob:

    You wrote:

    “First, if I’ve said of various young Yankees hitters that they aren’t going
    to be top offensive performers, it is because in the ten-plus years I’ve
    been doing this feature they have had precious few position players who have
    projected as coming stars...Jesus Montero is the team’s first hitter in a
    long, long time to attain the level of elite prospect.”

    How many teams have developed "elite" position prospects in that same time
    frame? The Red Sox, who I see a bunch of, and who are widely lauded for
    their feeder system, haven't. Pedroia is a .750 OPS career hitter outside of
    Fenway (which isn't talked about nearly enough for a "perennial" MVP
    candidate). The Red Sox are a relevant comparison because they regularly
    draft where the Yankees do and at those spots there are usually only
    high-risk pitchers available. So both teams are stuck trying to get those
    prospects in the noisy international market or the even nosier later rounds
    of the draft.

    With prospects, I have a very hard time separating the hype from the
    reality. Ten years is a big enough window that the majority of top position
    prospects should have reached the majors and shown whether the hype was
    justified. So, over the last ten years, who are the elite position prospects
    that the Yankees missed? Of the MVPs: Pujols was a JC guy. Mauer was drafted
    high. Pedroia, given his splits, is an inferior hitter to Cano. Everyone
    missed Ryan Howard. Of the up and comers, who should the Yankees have
    drafted or signed? Can you show me 30 (one for every team) elite position
    prospects that: a) were drafted in the last few spots of the first round or
    later; b) were available in the international market? Which teams tend to
    get those prospects? The Yankees closest competition, the Red Sox, haven't
    gotten them either.

    Quite simply, I don't think your standards are realistic.

    Many thanks as always,
    Rob


    Rob, I think we’re playing with semantics because I was too loose in my wording. I could change the sentence involving Montero to, “Jesus Montero is the team’s first hitter in a long, long time to be worthy of being called a prospect, period” and it would be more accurate. During this feature’s existence (1999-present), the Yankees have brought up very few home-grown position players, and not purely because they preferred other team’s veterans, but because even middling prospects weren’t available. The comparison with the Red Sox is, with all due respect, loony. Their case for being superior farmers doesn’t rest on Pedroia. In the period under discussion, the Red Sox have developed the best all-around player in the National League, Hanley Ramirez; the 2007 Rookie of the year/2008 MVP, Dustin Pedroia; one of the leading first basemen in baseball, Kevin Youkilis; a three-time All-Star and batting title-winning second baseman, Freddy Sanchez; a two-time All-Star third baseman, Shea Hillenbrand; the Indians’ (now Rays’) starting catcher, Kelly Shoppach, the Rangers’ starting left fielder, David Murphy; last season’s Pirates’ starting right fielder, Brandon Moss; and their own left fielder, a 25-year-old with a .297 career average and two stolen base titles, Jacoby Ellsbury. Those are just the highlights.

    Now for contrast, here’s the complete, list by year, of those young players who came up, be it for a season or a cup of coffee:

    PLAYER
    YEAR
    Alfonso Soriano, D’Angelo Jimenez 1999
    Nick Johnson, Juan Rivera, Erick Almonte, Donzell McDonald, Scott Seabol 2001
    Drew Henson, Marcus Thames 2002
    Michel Hernandez 2003
    Andy Phillips, Dioner Navarro 2004
    Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera, Kevin Reese, Mike Vento 2005
    Kevin Thompson, Andy Cannizaro 2006
    Shelley Duncan, Bronson Sardinha 2007
    Brett Gardner, Francisco Cervellli, Justin Christian, Juan Miranda 2008
    Ramiro Pena 2009

    I left out a few players—Alberto Gonzalez, Wil Nieves, Felix Escalona—who spent significant time in other organizations on the way up. Do we need to make a full comparison? Since 2001 (that is, the “long time” I referenced) the Yankees have brought up one player who unexpectedly developed into a star (Cano—he was a .273/.327/.415 minor-league hitter through 2004), a role player, Thames, another role player who the Yankees tried to force into a starting role (Cabrera), and Dioner Navarro, who seems to be playing his way into a reserve position. Otherwise, they’ve had a tough time finding players who could sit on the bench for a major league team, let alone start.

    I’m not going to go through the Yankees’ drafts with the benefit of hindsight and tell you who they should have taken. It’s not entirely fair. However, even with their generally low draft position taken into account, they have had, until recently, a very poor record in the draft. Not all stars come out of the first round, and there are often solid players (if not instant stars) still available going into the sandwich phase of the round. Later rounds tend to yield role players, but the Yankees weren’t good at finding them. I don’t expect that every player they sign, or even any player that they sign, to turn into a Jesus Montero; he’s special. However, I do think it’s reasonable to expect that player development should have been able to render up serviceable replacements on occasion. Every organization in baseball digs up a few useful players in these rounds, but until recently the Yankees have struggled to find anything in the way of position players, early, late, sideways, domestic, international.

    My point to reader Ben, the answer to which you responded to, is that you shouldn’t shoot the messenger. First, I have a lot to live for. Second, I’m not going to lie to you when we talk about these young players. I’m glad Colin Curtis (second exhibition homer on Thursday) had a great winter and a good spring. I sincerely hope that this means he has found a way to turn his career around... But the truth is that he turned 25 last month and is a career .264/.334/.375 minor league hitter. You hear a lot about late bloomers, but the truth is that if a hitter hasn’t bloomed by 25 he’s almost certainly not going to.

    Here are some other names for you: Deivi Mendez, Wily Mo Pena, Elvis Corporan, Mitch Jones, David Parrish, Aaron Rifkin, Jason Grove, Richard Brown, Rudy Guillen, Ferdin Tejada, Estee Harris, Hector Made, J.T. Stotts, Jon-Mark Sprowl, Jon Poterson, Tim Battle, Marcos Vechionacci, Mario Holmann, Omir Santos, Josue Calzado, Eric Duncan, Kevin Howard, C. J. Henry. These are some of the players that Baseball America listed among the Yankees’ top 30 prospects at one time or another during this century. For as many of them as I had call to discuss, and several of them have passed through these pages, I said the same thing that you guys are calling me on here: “They don’t look like they’re going to be impact players in the majors.” I typically said why, usually a failure to judge the strike zone, or a mismatch of batting capabilities and position. Still, I should have been more blunt, should have said, “There’s nothing here.”

    The Yankees haven’t offered a lot of middle ground that way. Had they drafted Todd Frazier in the first round of the 2007 draft instead of Andrew Brackman, I’d have been able to say, “Frazier doesn’t look like a coming star and his glove isn’t great, but he has pop in his bat and enough experience around the diamond to be a Ben Zobrist type super-sub.” If they had taken Julio Borbon, who went one pick after Frazier, I would have been able to say, “Look out, Brett Gardner, you’ve got some speedy competition.” Has they taken Chase Headley in the second round of the 2005 draft instead of J.B. Cox, I could have said, “He’s not the kind of guy you would want to build a lineup around, but he could be a solid contributor.” How about—picking at random—2004 5th rounders? Nick Evans of the Mets, Angel Salome of Brewers, Paul Janish of the Reds, Matt Macri of the Rockies, Brandon Allen of the Diamondbacks, Mark Lowe (pitcher) of the Mariners, Kevin Melillo of the A’s—with any of those players, we would have been able to say, “No star potential here, but they have something to contribute.” The Yankees haven’t been able to find those guys.

    And yes, all of those players went off the boards before the Yankees drafted in the fifth round, but they were out there when the Yankees picked pitcher Jason Jones with the third-to-last selection of the fourth round.

    So, what have I been left with? I have to say things like, “Tim Battle has all the offensive skills in the world but has so many problems making contact that if he made it to the majors he’d strike out 350 times.” Until there’s a little more variety in the second-line positional offerings (Corban Joseph? David Adams? Kelvin DeLeon? Melky Freakin’ Mesa?) I’m afraid it’s going to be more of the same old same old.

    MORE OF ME, MORE OF ME
    Wholesome Reading has been updated with new entries and more coming throughout the weekend. Warning: Politics (and even more Alexander Hamilton)!

    Just a reminder that I tweet updates to this site, Wholesome Reading, and Baseball Prospectus, at PB_Steve and that updates to the PB and WR also post to my Facebook profile, which is simply Steven Goldman. Have a swell weekend.

     

    1.9 (1 Ratings)

    Washington's white lines

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010, 6:52 PM [General]

    Rangers manager Ron Washington tested positive for cocaine during the 2009 season. Stunningly, though Washington offered to resign, the Rangers did not let him go.


    We think of him as part of our family,"[team president Nolan] Ryan said. "Just because somebody in your family makes a mistake doesn't mean you quit loving them. We'll move forward.

    Swell. I’m all for giving people second chances. Well, except for drunk drivers, train engineers texting away while the train crashes, and leaders who commit gross derelictions of duty. Major League Baseball is trying to clean up the game, get the steroid abusers out, and in general present teams made up of good citizen athletes. Washington is part of the leadership, someone who is supposed to set an example for his subordinates, and he blew it. Worse, Washington was a Major-League ballplayer (primarily with the Twins) during the coke scandals of the 1980s, so he knows exactly what drug abuse cost the game and how destructive its effects can be—there are ballplayers from those days who are dead now who would still be with us if not for their habit.

    Where was the Commissioner’s office in demanding that Washington be let go or disciplined? Clearly, retaining Washington is the more human thing to do here, but some derelictions are incompatible with positions of leadership, not to mention underscoring the hypocrisy of MLB’s drug policies.

    THERE’S ALWAYS A PLACE FOR THE ANGRY YOUNG MAN
    Is Joe Girardi the manager that can get value out of Elijah Dukes? The Nationals released Dukes today. Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo says there was no instigating incident, but also referred to an improved clubhouse atmosphere with Dukes gone. Whatever the cause, Dukes retains a decent amount of potential, even as he creeps up on his Age-26 season. A right-handed hitter with power, speed, and some sense of the strike zone, Dukes has played all three outfield positions though he’s considerably stretched in center field. He would be a platoon hitter/fourth outfielder with a great deal more growth potential than anyone the Yankees have now, including Marcus Thames, Randy Winn, and Jamie Hoffmann. There are a problems, all of which no doubt played into the Nats’ decision to release him: he’s been injury prone, and worse he’s had a violent temper, which in the past has led to suspensions and anger-management counseling.

    Some players with personality problems never find a way to capitalize on their talents, but others are just waiting to click with the right teammates and manager, colleagues who can provide an atmosphere and support system in which the player can function. The Yankees, with their pick of the litter of players who have both talent and ability, have usually steered clear of problem players, but it is also true that George Steinbrenner had a soft spot for giving players from Steve Howe to Darryl Strawberry to Dwight Gooden second and sometimes third chances, so there is a tradition here. Joe Girardi has continued the sense of professionalism fostered by Joe Torre, and players like Derek Jeter are around to provide an example. There’s some free upside to be captured here if the Yankees are willing to take a gamble… And if Dukes seems like a poor fit, he can always be released again.

    THE SECRET GREAT IN THE YES BOOTH
    I was researching another matter pertaining to the Yankees last night when I came across a June, 1981 profile of Ken Singleton in The Sporting News. Every hitter could do well by considering Singleton’s approach: “I’ve always had the ability to wait for a good pitch,” he told author Ken Nigro. “It’s hard enough to hit a strike, let alone swing at a ball out of the strike zone.” Said his manager, Earl Weaver, “Kenny would rather take strike three and walk back to the dugout than swing at a pitch he doesn’t like and hit a double-play ball back to the shortstop. He will not let a pitcher dominate the game.”

    I’ve talked about Singleton’s great ability with the bat before, but it always amazes me that his extraordinary hitting is not better known. In part, Singleton’s career is obscured because he played in Montreal and Baltimore, smaller markets, at a time when offense was suppressed. If he had had his 1977—.328/.438/.507—in New York in 1998, it would have looked more like .350/.460/.600 and we’d have a better idea of the star in our midst. That wasn’t a fluke year, either—Singleton was a consistently great hitter from 1973 to 1981. That peak was a little too brief for him to reach Hall of Fame status; he wasn’t a regular until 25 (blame the Mets for not understanding that he was a better hitter than Ron Swaboda and trading him) and his career didn’t coast to a number-padding finish but just dropped off rather abruptly. Still, if I had this guy in my broadcast booth, I’d have him open every spring training camp by lecturing on his philosophy of hitting.

    MORE OF ME
    Wholesome Reading has been updated with new entries. Warning: Politics (and Alexander Hamilton)!

    1.9 (1 Ratings)

    To the mats: More on Cano

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010, 5:15 PM [General]

    1: BUT I WAS HIGH ON JOHN-FORD GRIFFIN…
    "he’s not a top offensive performer and almost certainly isn’t going to be one."

    This is your most typical description of almost all young Yankee players, irrespective of position. Cano's OBP and his penchant for not coming up clutch have been widely discussed and over-analyzed. However, to come out and say that a player will never attain what is within his potential is crazy. Cano might never have a .400 OBP and a RISP Avg. that matches his career Avg., but to write him off at 27 when he is entering his prime is foolish. The Yankees want to give Cano the chance to succeed in the 5 spot because he is a huge part of their future. The Yankees can't rely on the potential of Montero, Posada's age-defying consistency and Swisher's career-ambiguity. Trying Cano out in the 5 hole will be crucial to see if the Yankees have a long term solution to protecting A-Rod and Teixeira in the lineup. —Ben


    Thanks for writing, Ben. You’ve misinterpreted my positions on Cano and on Yankees prospects. First, if I’ve said of various young Yankees hitters that they aren’t going to be top offensive performers, it is because in the ten-plus years I’ve been doing this feature they have had precious few position players who have projected as coming stars. I hyped the heck out of Nick Johnson when he was on the way up, but who else would you have had me get crazy over? Bronson Sardinha? Eric Duncan? Erick Almonte? Kevin Thompson? For more than half my run here, the Yankees were one of the worst drafting teams in baseball, and when they turned that around they concentrated mostly on pitching. Jesus Montero is the team’s first hitter in a long, long time to attain the level of elite prospect.

    Second, I did not say I’m writing off Cano. What I said was that he is not the ideal No. 5 hitter on this team because his game is not focused on reaching base, and other hitters on the team are better all-around producers. As for the rest, Montero’s time will come, Posada’s time may not yet be over (it’s worth finding testing that statement), and while “ambiguity” is probably the prefect word with which to describe Swish Nicker, it’s worth finding out whether he could be ambiguously productive instead of disappointing. We haven’t even mentioned Granderson and his home runs. The worst thing that could happen with him in that spot is that Cano bats with 100 walks in front of him.

    Cano is just reaching his prime and should continue to be a valuable property for years, assuming no more strange bad luck/bad concentration seasons such as the one he had in 2008. However, there are only a few consistent .320 hitters—by my count there have been 41 of them in modern baseball history. That’s a very small number compared to all of the players that have sat in a Major League dugout. My main point now and in the previous entry is that (1) if Cano is not consistent at the .320 level or higher he is actually less of a producer than he might at first appear, and (2) because of his impatience, even when he hits .320 he doesn’t get on base very often—again, his 2009 batting average ranked sixth in the American League, but his on-base percentage ranked 41st. He could surprise us, but it’s going to take a huge alteration in his basic approach to make him into the kind of hitter who can still produce in the years when he’s not vying for a batting title.

    2: YOU GOTTA ADJUST THE SET SOMETIMES
    Steve, I think bbyankees got it exactly right. Cano will be very good in the 5th spot. The history of lineups always had a high batting average hitter as opposed to a good on base average. Hits are more important at that spot then a guy that just walks a lot. I see Cano driving in a lot of runs. Oh and Steve please note it took Hornsby till his 6th year to really find it. And then school was out.—yankee7777

    You’re wrong about Hornsby. The Rajah was a monster from his rookie year on, positing a 150 OPS+ at age 20 and a 169 at age 21. The reason it doesn’t look like Hornsby was a force at that time was that we’re talking about 1916 and 1917, years in which the game was played with a dead octopus instead of a ball. The lively ball was introduced in 1920, Hornsby’s fifth year—he was 24, not 27 like Cano—and he picked up his first batting title, hitting .370. At 25, he hit .397, and at 26, he hit .401. His development curve is in no way comparable to Cano’s.

    Regarding “hits are more important at that spot than a guy that just walks a lot,” you’d be right if there was no tradeoff for those hits. Robinson Cano made the 13th-most outs in the AL. He created 106 runs, but ate up all the outs of 17.3 games doing it. Nick Swisher created 97 runs, but made only 396 outs, or all the outs for 14.7 games. The most important thing in any lineup spot is to not make outs. It doesn’t matter if you do it by a hit or walk in the end as long as you keep the game going. Cano is a selfish hitter. When he swings early in the count and fails to reach base, he brings the Yankees closer to the end of the game. He spends a precious commodity, outs, like they were AIG bonuses, and that’s why giving him a prime spot in the lineup is foolish. Cano batting more often means Cano makes more outs means the Yankees lose faster. If he hits .350, great, I’ll eat my words. Otherwise, it’s just not a smart thing to do.

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    1.9 (1 Ratings)

    Going five-hole with Robinson Cano

    Monday, March 15, 2010, 11:05 PM [General]

    In 1989, Rangers manager Bobby Valentine employed an unorthodox batting order. He led off centerfielder Cecil Espy, whose main skill was being fast. His second hitter was usually shortstop Scott Fletcher, who was an exemplar of the traditional number-two type. He didn’t hit much, but he drew a few walks, was tough to strike out, and if he wasn’t fast, he wasn’t slow either. Rafael Palmiero, not yet a power-hitter (he would hit eight home runs that year) batted third until Harold Baines came over at the trade deadline. Ruben Sierra, then 23, batted fourth every day and had the best season of his career.

    In the fifth spot, you might have expected that Valentine would have used Pete Incaviglia, his 25-year-old, slugging leftfielder. Sure, Pete struck out like crazy; having gone directly from the campus of Oklahoma State University to the Majors, he never did pick up the finer nuances of the game. Still, the fifth spot was traditionally the place that the Inkys of the world got to hit. It was where you were supposed to put your second-best slugger, the guy who hit for power but wasn’t as refined as you cleanup guy.

    But no, Incaviglia spent the year batting sixth or seventh. Valentine’s everyday fifth-place hitter was second baseman Julio Franco. The Dominican infielder with the unusual batting stance had hit .295/.344/.394 to that point in his career, and had averaged over .300 for three consecutive seasons. It was a pretty average to be sure, but as the slugging percentage suggests, he was in no way a power hitter. He had hit 28 total home runs over the three previous seasons. Due to a ground-ball-oriented approach, he  didn’t hit very many doubles or triples either, but did hit into a great many double plays.

    Still, the choice made a certain amount of sense on paper. As Bill James pointed out at the time, if the cleanup hitter comes up with a runner on second and first base empty, prompting the opposition to pitch around him, there is utility in having a .300 hitter coming up next instead of a power hitter, because a single will score the runner on second most of the time.

    The problem is that this emphasis ignores the main function of the batting order. Creating neat-o interactions between hitters and runners is a secondary function of the lineup; these situations only come up so many times over the course of a season. The primary purpose of the batting order, which is to distribute playing time in the form of plate appearances, giving the most exposure to the team’s best hitters while minimizing the poor ones.

    Valentine’s batting order failed to do this, because it put Espy in the leadoff spot, and Espy couldn’t hit. As you surely know by now, over the course of the season the leadoff spot bats most often, followed by the second spot and so on. Here’s how the distribution of plate appearances broke down for the Yankees last year:

    1: 785 PA
    2: 772 PA
    3: 753 PA
    4: 732 PA
    5: 713 PA
    6: 699 PA
    7: 682 PA
    8: 668 PA
    9: 643 PA

    Here’s the complicated part: although the Julio Franco part of the batting order should not be primary, a manager also can’t ignore it completely. You want your best hitters to bat most often, but if you bat Albert Pujols or Mark Teixeira in the leadoff spot, what you’re going to get is a lot of solo home runs. If you end up batting .257/.313/.331 Cecil Espy ahead of .316/.386/.462 Julio Franco, you’ve failed on both counts.

    This lineup flashback comes courtesy of the apparent decision to bat Robinson Cano fifth. On the surface, this would seem to bear a superficial resemblance to the Julio Franco decision -- “Hey, let’s get a high-average guy up there to protect A-Rod and Teixeira!” but it’s not nearly the same thing. Forget Cano’s problems with runners on base, which have lasted the length of his career, not just last year. The issue is his on-base percentage. Cano isn’t nearly as good as his batting average makes him look because he’s so darned impatient.

    Cano’s batting average ranked sixth in the league. His True Average (formerly Equivalent Average) of .293, which measures the sum total of his contributions on offense on a scale identical to batting average, ranked only 29th among players with 400 or more plate appearances. Among those finishing ahead of him: Jorge Posada (.301) and Nick Swisher (.300). You really don’t need the statistics to appreciate the basic reality of this: Posada and Swisher simply reached base more often. Unless Cano hits .350 this year or learns to take a walk, both spectacularly unlikely, and assuming business as usual on the part of either player, they are going to reach base more often this season.

    Given the purpose of the batting order is to promote offensive production, what purpose is served here? Over the course of his career, Posada has been the superior hitter with men on, and his career OBP stands at .379. Like Cano, Swisher struggled to deliver baserunners to the plate, but still reached base 40 percent of the time in those situations. His strikeouts, viewed as an annoyance by the less sophisticated fan, meant he hit into a double play in only 11 percent of opportunities vs. 17 percent for Cano. Posada, despite his typical aged catcher legs, hit into a twin killing in only 14 percent of his opportunities.

    We also haven’t considered another possibility, which is that not only does Cano not hit .350, he doesn’t hit .320 again either, instead falling back to his career averages of .306/.339/.480. Were he to do that, his OBP would barely escape the league average.

    Perhaps Joe Girardi, master motivator, super psychologist, leader of men, is simply trying to boost the easily distracted Cano’s focus and confidence with this move, but even a Cano that doesn’t hit first-pitch pop-ups to left field is not going to turn into Rogers Hornsby. Cano has value, but he’s not a top offensive performer and almost certainly isn’t going to be one. Girardi may have allowed himself to be blinded by that flashy batting average, forgetting that the most important factor is reaching base.

    Parenthetically, in 1991, Franco won the batting title for the Rangers, hitting .341/.408/.474. He spent the season bouncing between the second, fourth, and fifth spots and drove in 78 runs. The Rangers had the best offense in the league that year. Valentine led off Brian Downing, a slow but highly selective hitter, mixed in a blossoming Palmiero in the second and third spots, shifted Sierra between third and fourth, and when Franco wasn’t hitting fifth, had Juan Gonzalez and Kevin Reimer bat there, both exemplars of the traditional number five hitter. The lineup was basically sorted by on-base percentage, and it worked just fine.

    MORE OF ME
    Spent the weekend in darkness bailing water out of my flooded basement, but still managed to get a few things in at Wholesome Reading. Warning: Politics (and stained chairs)!

    1.9 (1 Ratings)

    The Roundtable of Titans

    Friday, March 12, 2010, 2:34 PM [General]

    With rain washing out today’s pertinent spring training action, this seemed like a good time to take stock of the fifth-starter competition with two friends and colleagues, Jay Jaffe of Futility Infielder and Baseball Prospectus and Cliff Corcoran of Bronx Banter.

    STEVE: Given that Joba was averaging 91 MPH during Wednesday's start and his velocity was down last year as well, is it possible that we're no longer looking at a potential elite starter or am I jumping to conclusions?

     

    JAY: It's probably a bit early to start worrying about any pitcher approaching maximum velocity at this stage of the spring, but the results (11 runs in 3.2 innings via two appearances) are certainly unsettling. That said, I think we're at the point that every minor variation in what Joba does relative to expectations is under such a microscope that we - by which I mean everyone following the Yankees, not specifically you two - are in danger of losing perspective. It's the Yankees brass that's brought this situation about, and one has to wonder if the uncertainty of Chamberlain's role at this point in time is weighing upon him.

    STEVE: You bring up a good point about the Joba-scope, Jay. Still, though we always talk about how it's crazy to make decisions based on small sample-performances in Spring Training, but on the other hand, isn't there a point at which you have to say, "Track record be damned, we need to see this player execute already?" Cliff?

    CLIFF: If we're talking about how it should be, I don't think a team should ever say "track record be damned," but I do think your point about needing to see players execute is valid. I think that's Brett Gardner's situation this spring. He enters camp as the most-likely third outfielder, but his Major League track record is short (less than 425 plate appearances), and his thumb injury and Melky Cabrera's better-than-awful performance in center field last year limited him to 15 starts in the second half of 2009. So, Gardner needs to remind JOe Girardi that he can hold down a starting job, that he's more than just a speedy runner. He needs to show what he can do in the field and in terms of getting on base in the first place.

    I think Phil Hughes and Chamberlain are in a similar situation except there's only one spot, so what Girardi is looking for (I assume and hope) is execution of pitches, game planning, the ability to set-up hitters, work out of jams, miss bats, avoid hard contact, turn lineups over, etc. This is the one time of year when I agree with those who diminish the importance of statistics. The sample is indeed too small, thus one bad outing, due to the after-effects of the flu or fatigue toward the end of an outing in which the pitcher in question is extending his pitch count, can ruin an ERA. Also, as Girardi has said, the first couple of spring starts are really tune-ups in which starters don't use all of their pitches and are just trying to build arm strength and get a feel for things. So for Hughes and Chamberlain, as well, the charge is to execute in a high-pressure situation, to show what they can do, but I don't think that necessarily means the pitcher with the better ERA is going to get the job. If Joba continues to struggle but suddenly finds it in his last two spring starts and looks like the guy from 2007 again, I think the job will be, and should be, his.

    Track record should absolutely play a part in it, however. In a perfect world, the players competing for jobs in camp aren't all starting from zero. Rather, they're demonstrating the skills that allowed them to compile the track record that got them to this spot in the first place. To use an extreme example, based on track record alone, Ron Guidry should be the fifth starter. He's in camp as a special instructor, so he's available and in uniform, but ask him to win the job and you'll realize that he's 59 years old and no longer has those skills. Based on track record alone, Chamberlain should be the fifth starter, because in his 32 major league starts before the team started skipping his turn and limiting his innings late last year, he posted a 3.27 ERA and 8.74 K/9, while Hughes has a 5.22 ERA and 7.1 K/9 in his 28 major league starts.

    Joba also has the advantage of being prepared to throw up to 200 innings this season, but he has to prove that his velocity is not an issue, that he can still break off those nasty sliders we saw in 2007 and 2008, that his curve and change are effective major league pitches, that he can mix those four pitches effectively, and that the debates and rules that hounded him over the past two years haven't undermined his confidence on the mound. Jay is right about Joba being under a microscope and there being a loss of perspective about his performance as a starter (I imagine the stat I quoted above will surprise a lot of readers), but Chamberlain also has to prove that he can withstand that concentrated heat without bursting into flames.

    JAY: Just to underscore a couple of very good points Cliff made there, it's very important to recognize that while Hughes has had sporadic success as a major league starter, Chamberlain did have a stretch of sustained success in the rotation, and the numbers back that up. Unfortunately, the stretch that's in the forefront of everyone's mind is of him flailing about, putting up a 7.52 ERA while throwing just 46.2 innings over the final two months of last season.

    In a way it's not all that dissimilar from what the doubters are saying about the Dodgers' Chad Billingsley, a kid with number one starter potential who was nonetheless so bad in the second half of last year that the team cut him from their postseason rotation. It's easy to forget that before he started dealing with the hamstring problems underlying his second half struggles, the guy did get selected for the All-Star team and struck out 179 hitters after whiffing 201 the year before, because the last impression he made was so unfavorable that it cast doubts in so many minds.

    The other thing, as Cliff notes, is that for all of the sturm und drang of Joba's 2009 season, the Yankees have put him in a position to throw 200 innings in 2010, or perhaps just a bit less than that, and that to pull back from that and stick him in the bullpen all year throwing 70 or 80 innings is only going to create similar problems to what they endured in ramping him back up a year from now. It would be a shame to let that opportunity for him to take a full workload go to waste.

    CLIFF: And, just to reiterate, that flailing, all of those 46 2/3 innings, came after the Yankees started jerking him around to control his workload. He came out of the All-Star break and dominated in three starts (21 1/3 IP, 8 H, 2 R, 8 BB, 19 K). Then the Yankees skipped his next turn, and he was unable to recapture that feel he had coming out of the break.

    STEVE: Pulling the camera back for a second, let’s consider the import of this decision. Very few teams are deep enough to have three quality starters in their rotation. The Yankees, if they get a solid performance from starter #5, are arguably about to be five deep in the rotation. Normally, you might be tempted to say, “Five starters? Okay, see you in October,” and go back to your cave until Autumn. It seems, though, that that the Red Sox are about to do the same thing. To me, this is the most compelling aspect of the coming season, the depth of the Red Sox and Yankees rotation. Which has the edge, and how important is it that the Yankees get this No. 5 thing right?

    CLIFF: I think the lasting impact of Spring Training decisions tends to be overstated. Brett Gardner and Xavier Nady won the center and right-field jobs last spring. How long did that last? How long did it take for Chien-Ming Wang to create a gaping hole in the Yankee rotation last year? Just because Hughes or Chamberlain isn't in the rotation on April 4 doesn't mean he won't be in it on May 4, and just because one of them is doesn't mean he'll remain there on May 4. During the heyday of the Torre dynasty it seemed the Yankees often had six or more quality starters entering camp, but injuries and poor performance always seemed to sort them out before a tough decision had to be made. Also, I'm not entirely sure the Yankees can choose incorrectly given the quality of their two options. Remember, this is the fifth spot in the rotation. The Yankees got a 6.92 ERA from Wang's spot in the rotation last year and won 103 games. There's a low standard for success here.

    As for a comparison to the Red Sox, the Boston rotation projects as Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Clay Buchholz with Tim Wakefield as the alternate. Is that better or worse than Sabathia, Burnett, Vazquez, Pettitte, Joba/Hughes? I think they're pretty similar. Young lefty ace? Check. Fragile ex-Marlin with great stuff? Check. New arrival who has been asked to be an ace in the past? Check. Elite prospect hoping to finally shake the prospect tag? Check. What worries you more, Matsuzaka's conflicts with the team and 2009 injury/conditioning issues or the mileage on Andy Pettitte's elbow? I think there's enough talent in both rotations that fortune will tip the balance.

    JAY: More excellent points, Cliff. Too often, I think we get focused on the state of the team as of Opening Day as opposed to appreciating how well they've armed themselves for the six- or seven-month grind ahead. So perhaps the real take-home should be that if you're talking about two quality arms of the caliber of Chamberlain and Hughes as your fifth starter, that's a nice problem to have.

    And let's not forget that the Yankees do have some vulnerability in their rotation. Sabathia threw a combined 266.1 innings including the postseason last year, and one of the ESPN stat guys pointed out on the TMI blog, recent history has not been kind to the workhorses of the past several World Series winners. Curt Schilling, Mark Buehrle, Chris Carpenter, Josh Beckett and Cole Hamels all had rough times the following season, and while we like to believe big CC is different, his risk has increased somewhat. And then there's Burnett, who gave them 234.1 innings including the postseason but who's notorious for his fragility, and Pettitte, who's 38; I'll take the under on that trio matching last year's 99 regular season starts, and pitching in a three-man rotation into November, thanks. Plus the fact that if Hughes wins the fifth spot, he'll be on an innings leash... The bottom line is that you can never have too much pitching (unless you're carrying Sergio Mitre, which means you're over-thinking this fifth-starter business) and the Yankees don't.

    CLIFF: Exactly, which is why they traded for Javy Vazquez, one of the most reliable innings eaters in baseball, and forced Joba and Hughes to compete rather than automatically slotting them both in the rotation with only Mitre, Gaudin, Aceves, and minor leaguers yet to make their Major League debut as backup.

    STEVE: I have one (predictable) disagreement here, which is that using Mitre would be under-thinking, not over-thinking, in that there is a whole other issue at work here, which is that if the Yankees want to avoid returning to the days of buying day-old sushi free agents like Carl Pavano, they have to establish at least one real prospect in the rotation this season. Heck, I’m tempted to argue that they would be better off establishing both Joba and Hughes in the rotation, but Jay is probably right that injuries will probably solve that problem at some point this season, though if the Yankees cling to the idea that a pitcher cannot be “stretched out,” it could be a wasted year for one of the two. That, though, is an argument for our next roundtable.  

    MORE OF ME
    Wholesome Reading has been updated with new stuff and will continue to be throughout the weekend (warning, kids: politics!). Have a good one and I’ll be back Monday unless there be breaking news, like Joba being traded for a Filet o’ Fish sandwich.

    2.8 (2 Ratings)

    Stray thoughts

    Thursday, March 11, 2010, 7:26 PM [General]

    IT’S NOT EVEN TRIVIA
    When I saw that the Rays had signed Cuban defector Leslie Anderson, I was all set to tell you about how he would be one of the few Leslies ever to play ball, not counting slugging first baseman/pinch-hitter Sam Leslie of the Dodgers and Giants (.332/.409/.456 playing every day in 1934). It turns out I was Leslie-naive; there have been a ton of them, headed up by Yankees hurler Bullet Joe Bush, whose real name was Leslie Ambrose Bush. Bush was a Yankee for just three years, and he wasn’t exactly beloved by management given some of his postseason pitching, but he had solid, A.J. Burnett-style seasons that helped the Yankees to two pennants.  

    GOODBYE, BRIAN GILES
    Possibly not a great human being, but a hitter whose true worth will never be fully appreciated due to park effects. From 2004-2008 he hit .285/.386/.446 overall, but .298/.397/.478 on the road. His adjusted OPS of 136 ranks 98th all time. He’s not a Hall of Famer, but he might have been in borderline territory had (A) the Indians not kept him in the Minor Leagues about three years too long, and (B) he had played in parks that added to his skills instead of suppressed them. The Indians traded him to the Pirates for Ricardo Rincon, one of the worst deals in franchise history.

    ‘TIL WE MEET AGAIN, JOSE REYES
    As one who gets his thyroid hormone out of a bottle, I have great sympathy for whatever Jose Reyes is going through with his malfunctioning gland. Until I lost the thing, I never knew just how useful it was to have the right dose of juice delivered to your heart each day. If you get the level too low, you’re sluggish, everything you eat is the equivalent of a cheese and lard pizza, and you just might keel over. If the dosage is too generous, your heart skips around like a politician before an ethics committee, playing drum solos that would make Neil Peart faint with fear -- and you just might keel over. Best wishes, Jose, in getting this resolved in such a way that the word “synthroid” does not become part of your daily vocabulary. Sympathy also to Mets fans, who are once again in line to see more of Alex Cora than they really want to.

    SOCIAL NETWORKIN’ FOOL, CONT’D
    Now that I’m on Twitter, I am getting tweets from Nick Swisher. Am looking forward to in-season dispatches explaining the whole batting-.200-with RISP thing. In fairness, I may have to tweet about typos.

    1.9 (1 Ratings)

    Understanding Torii Hunter

    Thursday, March 11, 2010, 9:42 AM [General]

    TORII HUNTER AND THE VERY BLUSTERY DAY
    Flipping through the newspaper on the train out of Washington this morning, I read this story in USA Today’s sports pages: “Efforts to develop black talent in USA insufficient” by Bob Nightengale. The story opens with some surprising quotes from Angels center fielder Torii Hunter:

    "People see dark faces out there, and the perception is that they're African-American," Los Angeles Angels center fielder Torii Hunter says. "They're not us. They're impostors.

    "Even people I know come up and say, 'Hey, what color is Vladimir Guerrero? Is he a black player?' I say, 'Come on, he's Dominican. He's not black.'”


    I read that a few times just to make sure I had gotten it right and then turned to my traveling companion, Baseball Prospectus writer Jay Jaffe. “Read this,” I said, handing him the newspaper. “Do you suppose anyone will be coming back at Torii Hunter for saying this?”

    Jay read the article and let out a long whistle. “Hey, Torii,” he said, “Forty-five years ago, Vlad Guerrero wouldn’t have been any more likely to be served in a restaurant in the South than you.”

    That seems like the crux of the problem with Hunter’s comment: it creates a distinction that is false in American history and culture. If you want to draw a distinction between domestic and foreign-born players, regardless of skin color, that’s a fair thing to do, and it seems that that is what Hunter was attempting to do with his comments. Rather than denying the Latin ballplayer’s their status as men of color in contemporary America, he was referring to the differences inherent in having a different place of origin.

    As I said, that distinction is not unfair to make. We don’t live in a post-national world; we still chant “USA! USA!” for the American side. Baseball is the American national game, we all like to root for the hometown team, be it in baseball or the Olympics, so participation on the part of our youth has to be of concern to everyone who wants to see baseball retain its place in the culture. This can be considered apart from questions of race. Indeed, that’s what Chicago Cubs special assistant Gary Hughes did later in the article:

    [Hughes] says it's heartbreaking watching America's athletes shun baseball. It's rare, Hughes says, when he sees more than one African American playing in a college game. "A lot of people don't understand," Hunter says, "that the percentage of white players in the game is down, too."

    Thus the issue goes beyond declining African-American participation to something that has a broader effect on all of our prospective athletes. Race may play a part in that; it is likely that different groups have different reasons for participating or not participating, but either way, something larger than race, something part generational, part structural is at work.

    Meanwhile, Hunter has created a distinction between African-American and foreign born players that seems to be grossly insensitive and may have no bearing on their daily existence in the United States. As Jaffe noted, nationality has never earned anyone a pass on their skin color in this country. Certainly the racists who created and maintained baseball’s color line made no distinction between dark-skinned Americans and dark-skinned Latins. The only Spanish-speaking players who played in the days before Jackie Robinson were those of baseball’s only acceptable complexion.

    Nor, for that matter, have immigrants of any color, race, or religion been immune from the periodic nativist fevers that sweep this country from time to time. This country of immigrants has ironically made it very hard on newcomers from time to time. Chinese were despised in California and banned by federal law from coming to this country beginning in 1882, and denied citizenship to those that were already here. Later, Japanese were both excluded and barred from naturalization, and of course in World War II they were tossed in detention camps, their property confiscated and not returned. Irish Americans of the 19th century were familiar with “No Irish Need Apply” help wanted signs. While we consider ourselves a more enlightened society today, with our first African American president now in office, there are still parts of this country where it is still difficult to be (1) black or (2) an immigrant, particularly a Spanish-speaking one. To be black AND a Spanish-speaking immigrant, well, let’s just say that might be difficult at times. Certainly the subject of immigration from the southern hemisphere, legal and illegal, has been a favorite political football in recent years.

    Later, Hunter would write on his own blog that he was “hurt how the comments attributed to me went off the track and misrepresented how I feel. My whole identity has been about bringing people together… The point I was trying to make was that there is a difference between black players coming from American neighborhoods and players from Latin America. In the clubhouse, there is no difference at all. We're all the same… What troubles me most was the word ‘impostors’ appearing in reference to Latin American players not being black players. It was the wrong word choice, and it definitely doesn't accurately reflect how I feel and who I am. What I meant was they're not black players; they're Latin American players. There is a difference culturally.”

    Hunter might want to try for an explanation of his explanation, because he still hasn’t quite gotten where he needs to go, which is to stop using a word that has traditionally referred to skin color to connote nationality or origin. This is at best a problem of semantics, at worst a kind of racism that robs Latin American players of their own status and story in the American drama, denying them credit for their own experiences, which often include a difficult process of acculturation. Hunter is frequently cited as a good guy, one of the game’s ambassadors. He’s trying to say the right things now about all players being equal in the clubhouse, but his words reveal an internal conflict about groups and status.

    ONE NOTE ON A GAME IN WHICH JOBA CHAMBERLAIN WAS SUPPOSEDLY EXPERIMENTING
    Once, Casey Stengel had a wild young prospect named Roy “Tarzan” Parmelee pitching for him at Toledo. He was trying to sell him to the Giants, whose manager, John McGraw, was in attendance. Parmelee walked the ballpark, gave up a bunch of runs, and had to be pulled from the game. “Make out like you’re hurt,” Casey said when he got to the mound. “I’m trying to get you out of here gracefully.”

    Whenever a pitcher gets creamed, exhibition or not, and the manager says “No, no… You think he saw him get creamed. He was merely working on some things,” I think of Casey’s words to Parmelee. You can’t always know when a manager is just trying to avoid a more troubling story, in this case, weeks of “Gee, Joba can’t pitch, can he?” I guess we’ll find out next time through the rotation.

    Meanwhile: have we seen enough of Andrew Brackman now?

    SOCIAL NETWORKING FOOL
    I have given in to the pressure from friends, colleagues, and employers alike and have joined the Twitter-verse. You can follow me @PB_Steve. I’ll post links to this here Pinstriped Bible, Wholesome Reading, and Baseball Prospectus entries as they become available, information on appearances, and all the best recipes for Cincinnati chili. Well, some of that, not all of it. If you prefer Facebook, I’m there too (I’ve been there for awhile, actually, without publicizing it) under my own name, Steven Goldman, and you can get the same info there as well. Or you can just ignore me, and I guess I won’t have a date for the prom.

    MORE OF ME
    • I suggest that the biggest moment of Nomar Garciaparra’s career actually belonged to someone else.

    Wholesome Reading has been updated with new stuff since last we danced this dance of ours. Warning: Politics!

    1.9 (2 Ratings)

    Closing arguments

    Tuesday, March 9, 2010, 6:23 PM [General]

    COLD TOMMY JOHN HAS GOT ME ON THE RUN
    Twins closer Joe Nathan has apparently torn his ulnar collateral ligament and may require Tommy John surgery. Should Nathan go out for the year, this would obviously be a loss to the Twins and to baseball in general -- as far as regular season play goes, Nathan is right up there with Mariano Rivera. Since 2004, Rivera has a 1.90 ERA and 243 saves, Nathan a 1.87 ERA and 246 saves.

    Nathan's apparent demise is an important moment for Yankees fans. As the core of the current team ages, the same questions keep arising: How badly will the eventual passing of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera affect the Yankees? The answer is likely to be, respectively, a lot, maybe less than you would think given the team's depth at the position, and possibly not very much at all.

    It is counterintuitive to say the least that when talking about the retirement of an inner-circle Hall of Famer that the team would not be affected, but that is the nature of the closer's job. In the regular season, the difference between the best closer and the average closer is only a few saves. Over the last three seasons, Rivera's conversion rate is 94 percent. The average for a pitcher is his profession who is successful enough to keep his job is about 87 percent. Given 50 save opportunities, that's three blown saves for the field that Rivera converts. Remember, that not all blown saves are instant losses -- some may go on to be extra-inning ties that may still be won by the closer's team. The ultimate difference from the elite to the average closer might be as small as one additional loss a season. Some pennant races may turn on one loss, but most of the time this is survivable.

    As we've discussed many times in this space, the reason for this is that closers aren't used very well. The save rule says that any lead of less than four runs is a save situation, but this is far too generous. Most pitchers, even a bad one, can on any given day get three outs before they give up three runs. Tighter games require more skill, but these situations are often entrusted to set-up men and middle relievers, not to closers.

    Every year, some team trusts the wrong pitcher to close. There are pitchers emotionally unsuited for the job, or too wild,  too contact-oriented, or too inclined toward fly balls. However, the record shows that most teams turn over their closer position without suffering too badly. When the day comes that the Yankees have to pick a successor for Rivera, as long as they are able to avoid a pitcher who just can't do the job at all, things shouldn't change too badly.

    The postseason may be a different matter; October is the place where Rivera seems to rise to a higher level than his already lofty standard. But hey -- all things being equal, the Yankees will still get there with their “OK” post-Rivera closer. As for the Twins, assuming Nathan fails in rehabbing away his ligament tear, which seems likely, the Twins will move on to Jon Rauch or some other worthy who will be successful enough in the role for them to stay in contention in the congeries of crippled clubs called the central. One game might make a difference in that division, as tight as it will be, but the Twins have enough weaknesses in the starting rotation, among other locations, that should they fail to reach the postseason by some small margin there will be more blame to go around than can be absorbed just by the closer's spot.

    NICK THE GREENSTICK HITS TWO
    His power stroke is back, perhaps? Nobel Hitting Prize to Kevin Long? The Johnson signing has been subject to much ridicule based on his fragility, but take Johnson's customary .400 OBP and tag on 10 more home runs than he hit last year and you have an extremely valuable hitter, one that will go a long way toward making up for the decision to let Hideki Matsui move on. No one ever won any money by betting on Johnson to stay healthy, and even if he does it this year he may never do it again. This could be wishful thinking on my part, but Johnson is going to stay healthy in the DH role and make this contract pay off for the Yankees.

    If he opens the season hitting .211 with no power and then trips on a hotel carpet and goes out with the season, feel free to quote this back to me. I'll deserve it.

    YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS ...
    The Rangers acquired Edwar Ramirez from the Yankees for cash. Poor Edwar. Arlington is not the place for any pitcher to find easy success, but for one as prone to having his 3-1 changeups launched into the stratosphere, it's hard to image a worse place short of Colorado. Alas, Edwar. We'll always have Scranton.

    2.3 (2 Ratings)

    Pettitte and the Hall

    Monday, March 8, 2010, 2:29 PM [General]

    Keith Olbermann has a blog post up about Andy Pettitte and the Hall of Fame. Seems to me he’s unlikely to go (a separate issue from whether he should go or not), but he does underscore an interesting aspect of the way that the Yankees have gone about winning their umptybillion rings over the last 87 years. For a team that has won as many games as the Yankees have, you’d think they would have stamped out a 300-game winner every 15 years or so, the pitchers just picking up wins by hanging around good teams. That hasn’t been the case. Only two pitchers have won even 200 games in a Yankees uniform, Whitey Ford with 236 and Red Ruffing with 231. Andy Pettitte is currently third with 192 wins in pinstripes, followed by Lefty Gomez (189) and Ron Guidry (170).

    It’s not that Yankees pitchers haven’t been great pitchers at their peak; Ron Guidry’s 1978 was one of the greatest pitching seasons of all time, and if you picked a rotation out of the careers of great Yankees pitchers who aren’t in the Hall of Fame, guys like Sailor Bob Shawkey, Mel Stottlemyre, Allie Reynolds and Spud Chandler, you would win the pennant every year. These pitchers didn’t have the career value with normally associate with Hall of Famers, mostly due to injury, interruption for wartime service, or both, but at their peaks they were among the best hurlers active in their times. The free agency era has further complicated matters, because now a pitcher, say a Tommy John or Mike Mussina, can join the Yankees some portion of the way through his career and pitch well without having the time to climb too far up the career list. Pettitte’s Houston sojourn aside, he has simply had unusual longevity for a Yankees pitcher.

    Pettitte isn’t all about longevity, of course; he’s also had some very good seasons. His 1996, 1997 and Texas 2005 were excellent, with strong ERAs and high win totals, to the extent that those wins mean anything to anyone but the voters, wins being a team stat more than a reflection of an individual performance. In most other seasons, Pettitte has been a pitcher who can come in and pitch about 10 percent better than the average cat. This is immensely valuable in terms of the security a team can take from consistency, particularly when it makes a habit of setting up a good offense—after all, a pitcher need not post a 1.00 RA, he only needs to be a run better than whatever his offense scores per game. Still, this kind of performance is not quite at the level of the best Hall of Famers, who are more dominant and therefore are less dependent on limber lumber on any given day.

    Pettitte turns 38 in June. If he somehow rolls up his third 21-win season, he will finish the season with an even 250 wins. What is more realistic is another 14-win season, his fourth in five years. That would place him at 243 wins. Voters are too hung up on win totals; it’s so easy to let an arbitrary number like 300 do your thinking for you on a pitcher like Tommy John or Jim Kaat or Bert Blyleven than to think about the pitcher’s actual qualities. What is a more appropriate standard for Pettitte is his 3.91 ERA, low for this offensively-inflated era. Still, this falls in the good-not-great category: adjusted for park and league, Pettitte ranks 22nd among active pitchers with over 1000 innings pitched.

    Whitey Ford was the last great pitcher to give the prime of his career to the Yankees. We’re still waiting for the next one.

    BLALOCK TO RAYS?
    If the rumored move actually comes to pass, nice pickup for the Rays in adding former Rangers first/third baseman Hank Blalock to their bench. Blalock is a mystery. He looked like a great all-around hitter in the Minors and his first tour or two around the Majors, but whether through injuries or bad habits regressed badly, losing all semblance of plate judgment. Though he hit 25 home runs last year, he drew just 26 walks and finished with a .277 on-base percentage. Given the Rays suffered last year for lack of substitutes at the corners when injuries hit, not to mention a non-performing DH, this isn’t a bad move, particularly if they can get Blalock, 29, to remember what it was he used to do well. As the Yankees have learned from hitters stretching from Johnny Mize to Darryl Strawberry to Eric Hinske last year, there’s nothing like having a lefty power bat in reserve, whatever that player’s other weaknesses. The Rays may have just gotten theirs.

    MORE OF ME
    Wholesome Reading has been updated and I will be adding more as a choo-choo down to DC. Warning: politics, baby!

    • On Tuesday afternoon at roughly noon I’ll be appearing on the Power Alley program on Sirius-XM’s home plate channel. On Tuesday evening at 7 p.m., anyone in the Washington DC area who feels like having a fun evening of baseball talk can join me and several of my favorite Baseball Prospectus colleagues at the great Politics and Prose bookstore and coffee house.

    • Back at home on Wednesday, I shall not be receiving visitors.

    0 (0 Ratings)

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